Author, award-winning film-maker, playwright and literary curator, James Runcie, offers fascinating insight into his approach to researching his latest novel, The Great Passion.
People always ask writers of historical fiction about their research; where and how to do it, how much to do (how much is ever enough?) and when to stop all the footling about and just bloody well get on with the actual writing.
The questions keep coming because there are no rules. Every book is different. I tend to do a lot of initial research and then keep going as I write, adding more and more when the situation demands it. (It’s a meal. What were they eating? What were they wearing? What did the room smell like? Was it too hot or too cold? How long did it last? Who did the washing up?)
Ongoing research is also helpful when you are stuck with the plot or when something else isn’t working. You can take time out and cook the same meal that your characters might be having, or go on a similar walk, or look at some paintings and think about clothes and wigs and laundry.
My latest novel is about Johann Sebastian Bach and the creation of the St.Matthew Passion in Leipzig in 1727. It’s called The Great Passion. This was such an ambitious project that the only way to tackle it was to break it down into manageable areas, starting with the main characters, the places where they lived and worked, and imagine their daily routine.
There are several ways of going about this; one is to start by writing the obituary of your central character; another is to answer the Proust questionnaire on their behalf; a third is to try and imagine a “typical day” so you can then write one that is “atypical.”
Here’s a little summary of what I got up to.
In 1723, when Bach first came to Leipzig, to be the head of music, or Cantor, at the choir school for St.Thomas’s church, he was thirty eight years old. Not the old man who survives in the portraits, stern and bewigged, but young and ambitious: the time before Bach became the legend that is “Bach”.
The family consisted of his second wife Anna Magdalena, who was only 22, and their two-month-old baby. With them were the four surviving children from Bach’s first marriage to his cousin Maria Barbara: Catherina aged 14; Friedemann, aged 12; Emanuel, aged 9; and Bernard, aged 8. They were accompanied by Maria Barbara’s sister – Tante Friede – so they were a family of 8.
Already there is the potential for drama:
Imagine: you are Anna Magdalena, a new 22 year old wife but your husband still has his dead wife’s sister living with him.
Imagine: you are Bach’s fourteen year old daughter- your Dad re-marries someone only eight years older than you, and your Mum’s sister still lives with you, a constant reminder of your loss.
Imagine you are a Dad who is keen to start again and who has to tell everyone that this idea of upping sticks with a new family and coming to Leipzig is all going to turn out to be marvellous.
I realised that the way to start writing about Bach’s character was not to see him as a legendary genius but as a family man and working musician – practicing and playing every day, teaching within a school timetable, composing with the sound of a school full of boys all around him – and trying to do all this with the lack of rehearsal time, unreliable resources and the limitations of talent that generally accompany school performances.
Leipzig was the second largest city in Saxony with a population of 30,000. As Cantor of St Thomas’s Bach was based at the Thomaskirche and Director of Music at its school. The key thing was therefore to find out as much as possible about the routine of the church and the school. What would Bach be doing at five o’clock on a Wednesday? What were his living arrangements like?
The builder George Erdman drew up some ground plans that survive. The Cantor’s rooms are on the left, the Rectors on the right, with classrooms in the middle and dormitories above.
This building was destroyed in 1902, and a new school was constructed further away, but some late 19th century photographs survive to provide an idea of the shape and feel of the eighteenth century rooms, the proximities in which people lived, the noise and the lack of privacy.
Because my nephew is an architect, I asked him look at the plans and redraw them to understand Bach’s living arrangements.
The tiled Ground Floor contained two main rooms, one heated and one unheated; the corner living room downstairs was a study space for the school-age children- and then there was a split level structure at the back – four steps led down to a laundry, copper wash basin, cellar and store above a Maid’s room and toilet.
On the first floor there was a spacious landing, kitchen, main living room, master bedroom and Bach’s office.
Bach’s office consisted of his Composing room, in which the two main copyists would be allowed to work, together with an extra copyists room next door. These rooms were heated and would be filled with chairs, desks, bookshelves and musical instruments.
We also have a copy of the school rules from 1723, so that you can get an idea of the school ethos, the standards expected, the order of the day, discipline and punishment.
The primary rule was “to promote the well-being of the school”, to ensure that pupils were taught that “the highest wisdom consists in the true understanding and fear of God” with the ultimate purpose being to achieve “blissful happiness for the young people and for the entire community”.
So, as a writer, a starting point would be disobedience, rule-breaking, and people who fall short of that ethos.
There isn’t a school timetable from 1727, but there is one from the same school a hundred years after Bach’s death and I can’t think that the actual structure of a day was so very different.
Imagine this and you can start to track the composer’s movements across a week.
As well as his everyday teaching, Bach’s main task was the creation and performance of a weekly cantata. This was set within a precise liturgical calendar, so that if you needed to know what was pre-occupying Bach, the texts he heard read in church, the prayers he prayed, and the music he was writing, then you just have to align the date you have in mind to the church year.
On Sunday 14 May 1724, for example, Bach performed Cantata 86, Warlich, warlich, ich sage euch for the fifth Sunday after Easter.
He would have spent the previous five days week writing and rehearsing this cantata as he went along – 5 days to get the whole thing done and rehearsed. It’s eighteen minutes long.
He had to get enough written on Monday and Tuesday for first rehearsal with the boys on Tuesday in the music and motet practice from 5-7.
He started with the gospel text for the Sunday: St John 16: ‘Truly, truly I say unto you, if you ask something of the Father in my Name, he will grant it to you.’
This is Jesus speaking, so that always means the authority of a Bass for vox Christi. It is positive news and so Bach picks the key of E Major – the traditional key of joy and delight – and he writes it as a four part motet with continuo accompaniment.
He rules out the stave with a rastrum – a five-nibbed pen – and sets to work. There’s no time to wait for inspiration – if it doesn’t flow there are plenty of existing melodies he can borrow from the library and re-work. He can’t wait for inspiration to strike – he has to force it to come. As Robert Marshall has observed “the hectic pace of production obviously did not tolerate passive reliance on the unpredictable arrival of inspiration”. He had to get on with it.
This is then followed by an alto aria, meditating on the joy of such a promise – I would indeed gather roses, Even though the thorns should prick me.
More optimism, A major, the key often used to express love and trust in God, with a fizzing violin accompaniment. You can imagine the first violinist complaining to Bach that he hasn’t been given enough to do recently, and Bach saying “All right then, let’s see if you can play this.”
Then there’s a soprano chorale melody, followed by a tenor recitative and aria.
This means that each of the four soloists, Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass are given their moments in the sun and can be rehearsed separately to save time. Then everyone comes together for a final chorale, Hope awaits the right time, which is based on an existing hymn by Paul Speratus that they will know already.
The only time Bach had everyone together, was on the Saturday before the Sunday service. Then on the Monday, the whole process started up again
This is the Lutheran work ethic, and for the first six years in Leipzig, Bach’s weekly life is defined by industriousness and faith.
DRAMA AND DETAIL
All of the above was background. Then I had to work out the timeline, the plot and the detail. Because, perhaps the most important thing to remember is your research must not look like research.
It’s as if you have to throw it away. It’s ducks paddling on the water territory, serene on the surface, paddling away furiously underneath.
The reward is finding telling detail that counts – it might be a local food delicacy, the invention of a special type of musical instrument, or the fact that there was, say, a public execution in the city that your characters can attend. These need to be as specific as possible, because our lives are lived in the details. The idea for the great reformation hymn, A safe stronghold our God is still, came to Martin Luther when he was on the privy – a defiantly bold piece of music imagined mid-crap. Put these two things together and the act of imagination is immediately more interesting.
For this is the key to everything to do with research. You have to somehow end by making all your hard work look as if it hasn’t been any trouble at all – all the information has been naturally absorbed and then, even thrown away, as if none of it matters. Art must show no sign of strain.
Because, and this is the number one takeaway rule, and I have been so guilty of not following this advice in the past. DO NOT SHOW OFF YOUR RESEARCH.
Just enjoy it – and then pretend that you never did any of it at all. It’s the story and the people who matter, not how clever you are or how much work you did. No one cares about that. They just want a story in which they can trust and lose themselves. It’s not about you, or me, it’s all about the reader.
James Runcie is an award-winning film-maker, playwright and literary curator. He is the author of twelve novels that have been translated into twelve languages, including the seven books in the Grantchester Mysteries series. He has been Artistic Director of the Bath Literature Festival, Head of Literature and Spoken Word at the Southbank Centre, London, and Commissioning Editor for Arts on BBC Radio 4. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He lives in Scotland and London.